Prejudice - good or bad?  

April 2007

The other week, I went for a walk. It was a cold day. I saw someone wearing boots, jeans, a quilted jacket and a woolly hat. He had a dog on a lead. He looked quite alien to me and I fleetingly wondered whether I should cross to the other side of the road.  I, by contrast, was wearing what I normally wear - the sort of clothes I wore when I was still an office worker - and no hat. Then I realised that it was in fact a friend of mine. Once he became a person I knew, my sense of the difference between us, my prejudice, evaporated.

From research recently carried out (1), it seems though that prejudice can confer an evolutionary advantage. The suggestion is that our tendency to prejudice may come from two things - the constant need to make decisions about the danger we face from strangers and the need to know whether someone can be relied on to help you when needed. But, if you feel that you are part of a group, then it seems that you have a short-cut to making those decisions. Research shows that as members of a group we have a tendency to favour other members, for no other reason than that they are members of our group. So then, if you are prejudiced in favour of people in your own group, even if not well known to you, and you know instinctively that the other members are similarly prejudiced towards you, the need to make assessments of reliability or danger will be diminished. Instead you can be reasonably sure that you will be able to trust each other. Trust enables there to be greater co-operation and your group will benefit accordingly. Prejudice is beneficial.

But how do we define our group? Well it seems that almost anything will do. Colour is just one possible marker of difference - a similar dress code, social background or, on the wider stage, a similar ethnicity will be quite enough for us to recognise the existence of a 'group' and act accordingly. Even simply being arbitrarily assigned to a group by a researcher will be sufficient in the very short term. In my case, the wearing by my friend of a woolly hat was probably the thing that rang warning bells. In my mind, my group' does not dress in this way. If he had been dressed like me though, then I would have reacted with a lot less suspicion.

But the corollary of this, to distrust non-members, is also quite efficient as a rule of thumb. Because granted that we all behave in a preferential manner towards members of our own group, then obviously the amount of co-operation we shall give and receive from a member of a different group will be less. It would pay therefore to treat an outsider with caution.

A problem arises, however, when what should only be a rule of thumb turns into something more definite. The much-used expression I love France - shame about the French' sums it up well. It makes sense in the context of the cardboard cut-out figures of the French we see through the press in this country, but makes no sense at all when you actually meet and speak to them as individuals. It is even worse when society in general breaks down, such as in the Balkans in 1992. Then, Serbs and Croats, who had helped each other with their harvests the year before, were now killing each other. They had ceased to see each other as individuals and had retreated within the fortress of their group.

So it seems that we have a genetically determined tendency to have an initial distrust of people who are 'different' in whatever minor way it may be and a tendency to favour those who are 'like us'. I suppose that the lesson is that we should not feel guilty at having such feelings or deny their existence. We should instead recognise them for what they are - a survival strategy for when we first meet someone, but clearly not a rational basis on which to treat people in the longer term. People are individuals and we all benefit from assessing each other as such, whether we belong to the same group or not.

I shall never feel quite right though about people who wear woolly hats.





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